Brandon Graham MFA ’08 talks about the release of his second novel, Missing People.
In Missing People, Brandon Graham MFA ’08 tells the story of someone who’s not there. His second novel explores the disappearance of Etta Messenger, told through the shared histories of her parents, her high school sweetheart and the other people who made up her life.
Graham has a lot to celebrate in the new year: Missing People came out January 1, at the same time as the US publication of his first novel, Good for Nothing. Both are offered through Tyrus Books, a new imprint of Simon & Schuster. At the same time, Good For Nothing was optioned for a movie.
Over the years, Graham has worked in visual arts, ceramics, writing and more. While pursuing his MFA at the Center for Book and Paper Arts at Columbia College Chicago, he combined written and visual art into short literary zines and longer off-set booklets. He talked to us about how all of these experiences combined in his career as a novelist.
How has working in fine arts affected you as a writer?
The writing I’m doing now is an extension of all the things I’ve done previously. The novel writing came about because I developed an idea that was too big to put in a shorter book. I was generating ideas in grad school for short zines. I came up with an idea that didn’t work on a small scale. I really liked the idea and kept coming back to it. So, after grad school, I decided to revisit the idea. I didn’t initially tell myself I was writing a novel; that seemed too daunting. Instead I began by crafting a slightly longer narrative than usual, and it kept getting bigger and bigger. That turned into my first novel, Good for Nothing.
What draws you to writing fiction?
I have to do something creative, otherwise I feel slightly miserable. Fiction is interesting because it’s a way to lie as a means of seeking the truth. Talking about reality can be complicated. In fiction, you can metaphorically point at deeper truths that are accurate reflections the human experience. It’s a way to touch people, communicate with people, maybe even change some minds. When it’s working at its best books are a perfect, portable, transformative art experience.
What inspired Missing People?
I’ve spent a lot of years drawing still life portraits. One day I decided to make a negative space the focal point of the composition. I did it over and over. That idea transferred into the concept for Missing People. I was interested in writing a story in which the main character was gone. The reader could only know the missing person through the thoughts and memories of the characters that surrounded the absent character. By coming at it from a
lot of fractured angles, you gain a complete picture of the character that isn’t there.
What advice do you have for alumni trying to publish books?
I remember walking into a bookstore and thinking, “Look, all these people have written and published books. Some of these books are really remarkable, and some of them aren’t that great. I could write something that falls somewhere on that spectrum. All I need to do is put in the work.” The putting-in-the-work part turned out to be easier said than done. Books are long projects.
Over the years, I’ve known many talented, creative people, both visual artists and writers, who quit making things. The ones who’ve succeeded have persevered over time. At some point, I decided giving up was a waste of energy. I got bored with saying, “Oh, this is no good and I’m never going to make it.” I stuck to it. Perseverance is the main thing.